Morning Nights takes the meat out of dim sum. Will vegans or meat eaters bite into a plant-based xiao long bao?
The plump shumai I held in between my chopsticks more or less resembled other shumai I’ve eaten before. The wrapper was neatly pleated. The filling was generously packed and topped with minced carrots. I prepared my dipping concoction — a little sambal, hot mustard and soy sauce — then swiped the dumpling into the sauce and took a bite. It was really good: juicy, meaty. The seasonings were right, with a whisper of white pepper.
This shumai, however, was plant-based. It was almost too hard to believe.
For the record:
10:24 a.m. April 22, 2022OmniFoods is based in Hong Kong, not Taiwan as originally stated.
Morning Nights, a vegan dim sum and cocktail bar in Long Beach, is where I tasted this unique shumai, the culmination of one chef’s quest to make this cuisine go fully vegan.
People who love dim sum sometimes have uncompromising notions of what it should be. Shrimp in the har gow had better be sealed within a crystalline wrapper made of wheat and tapioca starches; chicken feet should be so tender that the skin slips off the bone like threadbare stockings. Cheung fun must be as slippery as a wet noodle, which it essentially is.
As I sat with this shumai, the question hit me: Could dim sum aficionados give vegan dim sum a shot? And also, would vegans care for dim sum that mimics meat so well?
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Morning Nights is a find — literally. I rushed past it on the way into a modern food hall called the Hangar, at the Long Beach Exchange retail complex. Unlike the other airy food stalls in the Hangar, Morning Nights is hidden in the shadows, as if it doesn’t want to be found. Two small, sliding glass windows are for orders and pickups. It shares basic seating in the hall’s dining area with other restaurants.
Once an eater finds the window, there’s an even deeper culinary secret in store. Down a dark hall just right of the pickup window, beyond a custom-made, towering red door, a hidden vegan cocktail lounge awaits. There’s no sign. Once inside, the bar and patio area felt like a private club or an oasis from shopping — super chill. H.E.R. crooned from the speakers. It is kind of a vegan speakeasy. Maybe a first. This is the “Nights” portion of the place, while the dim sum represents the “Morning,” hence the name of the restaurant’s, from founder Phillip Tsan.
“Originally I wanted to open a cocktail bar,” Tsan said. “The food was to pair with the drinks. It all fell into place.”
That isn’t the full origin story. In fact, the concept behind Morning Nights began with a courtship involving a vegan, a former girlfriend.
“When I met Paulette, she was vegan, but I wasn’t,” Tsan explained. “I wanted to impress her with foods she’s never tried.”
His favorite childhood food was dim sum, the popular Chinese brunch consisting of small servings of bao, dumplings, savory cakes, offals and other diminutive items. The glitch for Tsan, a former networking specialist and consultant, was that Paulette had never tried dim sum.
Plus, he realized he couldn’t find any vegan versions of it. Tsan considered this a challenge.
“IT can be mundane. Sitting at a desk. Taking meetings,” Tsan said. “But it’s also challenging, looking at things from different points of view.”
This problem-solving mindset kick-started his journey into reinventing dim sum for vegan eaters. Paulette was from Mexico. She hadn’t been exposed to very much Chinese cuisine in the States or her home country. She was a lifelong vegetarian and a vegan for seven years. Tsan, who is Chinese American, born in Paramount and raised in Long Beach, transitioned into a vegan diet when the two began dating. “She was fine with me eating meat, but I’d rather share vegan meals with her.”
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At first, Tsan dipped his toes into the vegan world with simple fare like tofu scrambles, and then he got into the fancy stuff. Locally, he and Paulette enjoyed mushroom tarts at Tal Ronnen’s Crossroads Kitchen. They took trips to San Francisco to dine at upscale vegan venues like Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar and Izakaya, eating burdock root maki and yuba nigiri while drinking plum sake.
After the vegan sushi experience, Tsan was inspired to explore Chinese vegan restaurants back in L.A. But when he did, he felt there was something lacking. Furthermore, he found plant-based dim sum tough to track down. He was determined to have her try it, even if he had to make it himself.
“I’ve always been a home cook, and when I met Paulette, I changed my entire pantry. It opened my eyes a lot,” Tsan said. He immersed himself and made plant-based versions of everything from pad see ew to mapo tofu and Bolognese to fajitas. “‘You should cook professionally,’ she told me.”
Traditional dim sum from the Guangdong province and Hong Kong isn’t something a home cook merely whips up on a whim. Even the most basic dumplings require folding skills, hours of practice to get right, and experience to masterfully construct — the more elaborate dumplings might take years to consistently get right.
Some pathways had already been set. Inomoni is a vegan dim sum pop-up that offers dumplings online and sometimes out of a local soul food restaurant. Iron Teapot is a newish dim sum restaurant in Venice that offers both traditional and vegan dim sum. A vegan Chinese restaurant on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel sadly didn’t survive the pandemic; it used to serve a small variety of vegan dim sum.
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While vegetarian options can be found at classic Chinese restaurants offering dim sum, like Atlantic Seafood, NBC Seafood, Lunasia and Sea Harbour, they’re typically not vegan, meaning your food may include some egg, dairy, chicken broth and maybe a splash of oyster sauce here and there. Even overseas in dim sum destinations like Hong Kong, few restaurants are dedicated to serving vegan dim sum alone.
Some of Tsan’s recipes were simpler to modify into plant-based versions than others. Banh mi can be vegan-ized by swapping out the pork for marinated tofu slices. Soy crumble is an analogue to ground beef for vegan sloppy Joe sandwiches. However, Tsan would be facing much more involved adaptations when tackling dim sum.
After some trial and error (and still more errors), Tsan understood he needed professional help, so he recruited friend and chef Kevin Lorico to develop recipes. Lorico was a cook at David Chang’s Majordomo at the time and is now executive chef at Bakers & Baristas.
Tsan then set off to scout locations while his test kitchen was in experimentation. He considered many locations, even a place in L.A.’s Arts District. One day while visiting his parents, who live in Long Beach, Tsan stopped by the Hangar, a relatively new, modern food hall within the Long Beach Exchange retail complex that houses food stands serving a colorful mix of offerings, from poke to poutine. (One of Tsan’s longtime friends, Stephen Le, a partner of poutine and sandwich restaurant the Kroft at the Hangar, is part of Tsan’s investor group.)
The good news was there were some vacancies at the facility, but the bad news was there was steep competition for LBX’s class-A retail spaces, except for one corner, which held a 600-square-foot end cap, a very desirable stall spot — although too small for most vendors — in the food hall sitting at a main entrance. Tsan set his hopes on securing it.
Next, he met with the property’s owner and took him to a traditional dim sum restaurant. The owner loved it, then Tsan explained that he was creating a vegan version of what they ate. The owner agreed to try Tsan’s vegan dim sum and liked it. Morning Nights at the Hangar was one step closer to reality.
Meanwhile, Tsan still hadn’t perfected his dumplings. Many dumplings include minced pork as a key ingredient. Vegan-izing the pork would become Tsan’s biggest hurdle to satisfying hardcore dim sum fanatics. Maybe that, and figuring out how to make plant-based phoenix talons.
It just so happened a Hong Kong-based food manufacturer called OmniFoods had been tracking Morning Nights’ Instagram account and saw an opportunity. The company makes plant-based pork substitutes like ground pork and fake Spam. An American representative offered Tsan samples of OmniPork, a product made with a blend of soy, peas, rice and shiitake mushrooms. At a glance, OmniPork looks uncannily like ground pork. It even has the sticky texture of fatty ground pork, which is requisite in achieving a pliant filling.
One of Morning Nights’ trickier items to modify was xiao long bao, the ever-popular little basket bun famous for its succulence. The dumpling consists of intricately tight pleats, which are integral for sealing in the juicy pork. OmniPork was the answer. Its meaty texture and flavor coupled with agar came together like vegan alchemy to create a bite of dumpling that is remarkably luscious, satisfying and close to its meat counterpart in flavor.
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As separate ingredients, the individual plant-based items get nowhere near the meatiness they’re aiming for. However, the visual of the xiao long bao; the combination of plant-based filling and wrapper; and the enhancement by its dipping sauce result in a sort of Gestalt effect, fooling the senses, saying, “Yes, you’re eating xiao long bao.”
Morning Nights’ dim sum menu features a few of the greatest hits of dim sum: shumai, xiao long bao, daikon cake, sticky rice in lotus leaf, spicy won tons, walnut shrimp. There are also some omissions; for example, har gow and shrimp cheung fun aren’t listed. Tsan blames this on hard-to-procure ingredients — another casualty of supply chain disruptions. But veggie fried rice and dan dan noodles are also available to round out a meal. And if you discover the bar in the back, you might be able to pair your food with some vegan alcoholic beverages.
“People sort of find the bar on their own,” Tsan said. “Regulars admit they don’t tell their friends because they say, ‘We don’t want it to get too popular.’” Tsan smiled as he looked around the outdoor patio, appointed with cushioned sectional seating. “It’s a secret bar that stays a well-kept secret.”
Vegan cocktails, wine and a variety of local Long Beach small-batch beers from Trademark Brewing are served starting at 3 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, and all day from Friday to Sunday. The vegan cocktails spotlight Asian ingredients such as lychee and five-spice. One of the newest drinks, called Stone Lime, places black sesame upfront and includes almond milk (instead of dairy) Baileys.
Since it opened in November 2020, Morning Nights has been embraced by Long Beach’s sizable vegan community, which already has plenty of vegan restaurant options in the city, such as Seabirds Kitchen and Hart N Soul Vegan Cafe. So far, even with minimal social media presence, support has been growing organically.
“The dim sum menu is evolving. We’re experimenting and adding new items all the time,” Tsan said. “We can be more creative as plant-based ingredients get better. Ingredients that didn’t exist a few years ago are now available, like OmniPork.”
And as far as a vegan version of chicken feet is concerned, “That’s a challenge,” Tsan chuckled. “I like challenges.”
4150 McGowen St.
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